UncanneyValley

The Dismemberment Plan – Uncanney Valley (Partisan Records)

UncanneyValley

I remember the moment well.  I was on a train between Romsey & Southampton Central taking in the urban scenery, while listening to my iPod on shuffle. Half awake, blissfully serene, I was suddenly shaken out of my slumber as a new, unfamiliar track began.  Hitting me in the face like a glass of hot piss.

“I DON’T WANT TO get back into the ring”

Some manic American man was barking lyrics over a busy drumbeat as a coupled bass line wandered around almost of its own accord.  By the time the trombones hit in, I was up and walking around the carriage, unable to contain my excitement. It was pure alchemy, a mismatch of sounds barely relating to each other, yet when brought together sounding more urgent and gripping than anything I’d heard before. The song was One Too Many Blows To The Head and the band was The Dismemberment Plan from Washington D.C. I didn’t know who they were, I didn’t remember downloading their music, but from that day I’ve never looked back.

Unfortunately, I was late to the party, and by the time I’d made this discovery, they had already announced their plans to disband.  Joe was off to work for NASA, Eric to become a teacher and I realised that these great new hopes were not new at all.  While they pondered which country to visit for their farewell tour, I pleaded with Travis by email to consider the UK, but alas Japan was the one for them.  It’s not surprising considering the muted response to their one other tour around the UK, a sojourn from their European support slots with Pearl Jam, but from a personal perspective it was heartbreaking news.

Fast forward six years and by 2009, it looked like it was over forever. The band had long since ceased bar a one-off charity show in 2007.  Travis Morrison, their opinion polarising frontman, had announced his retirement from music. Just two weeks prior, Eric Axelson & Joe Easley’s band Statehood were no more as frontman Clark Sabine lost his battle with cancer.  Perhaps it was the harsh contrast in critical reaction to these new endeavours, perhaps it was a change in priorities of life, but it seemed that any chances of an end to the indefinite hiatus were fading away to nothing.

It came a pleasant surprise when the reunion tour was announced, prompted by the vinyl reissue of their most successful album Emergency & I.  Initially a handful of shows seemingly for the nostalgia, the reaction was overwhelming positive and the excitement reached worldwide.  Each show was selling out fast and a whole new audience was being introduced for the first time to these revered veterans.  I personally flew to New York to catch them twice, not wanting to make the same mistake twice after missing their brief previous reunion.  The buzz around the reformation continued to grow, helped in part by their performance of The City on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show which created a life-long fan in ?uestlove which resulted in them playing at The Roots annual picnic.  The tour continued to extend though they remained coy when questioned about the future, openly committing to nothing, but simultaneously ruling nothing out.  Mentions of new songs suggested this wasn’t to be a never ending Pixies-tour and sure enough last July they announced they were in the process of recording a new album.  The thought of new The Dismemberment Plan material after all this time was simultaneously exciting and terrifying.

So here it is, Uncanney Valley (sic), their new album released almost exactly 12 years since the last. First impressions note that despite the ten year gap, the differences between this and Change feel smaller than between that of the rest of their albums.  No longer are this band trying to change the world, the angst of the past has been replaced with a contentment, safe in the knowledge that once it stops being fun they can just return to their day jobs.  There’s a comfort in sound, a distinct role that each of them plays in making that identifiable Plan sound.  Travis sounds more laid back then ever, I assume relegating any throat shredding to his new side-project The Burlies, favouring melody and hooks and a relatively conventional use of his voice on this album.  This guise fits well with the sentimental retrospection that underlies Travis’s poetic style, telling stories of the sacrifices of fatherhood (Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer) or the anonymity of a mundane repetitive life (Invisible), his writing style is as stark and autobiographical as ever.

The entire album is over before you know it, clocking in at just over 37 minutes.  It feels like a dipping of toes in the water, rediscovering each other and enjoying the familiarity that entails.  The slide guitar, frantic drum lines & obtuse samples over White Collar White Trash, the bass synth that underlies opener No One’s Saying Nothing.  The only element notably absent are the unconventional time signatures contrasted against memorable hooks in tracks like Gyrophant or Superpowers.  Tracks like Waiting and Let’s Just Go To The Dogs have an overt playfulness to them which has underlined much of Travis Morrison’s solo work.  It’s these moments which sometimes become grating, recalling the smug nods of artists like Ben Folds or Barenaked Ladies who spelling out the joke to the point where the only appropriate response is “I see what you did there”.  Waiting in particular is the epiphany of this, with its brass band intro segueing into a ditty so sickly sweet that Glee would barely need to rework it for their show.  Not since the track Change from Travis’s debut solo album Travistan has he sounded so pompous.  It emphasises the fine line he treads which gives him such a marmite quality.  It’s not a traditionally good voice, but on the delicate Lookin’ which also doses the same levels of sugar but without the cheeky winks it can result in one of the high points of the album.  Travis’s delicate voice exposed atop a beautiful arpeggiated chord progression that results in a touchingly sincere love song which may be the prettiest song the Plan ever recorded.

The album really comes into its own when the band lets rip, with Mexico City Christmas’s chorus surging with adrenaline, throwing out a surge of energy that builds and builds until Travis explodes into a howl.  This nervous tension which they create so well is particularly prevalent in the sultry Invisible, built around a morose repeated string sample, only letting up on its juxtaposed melodic chorus.  The drive is put to great effect on Go And Get It which marks one of the catchiest choruses that The Plan may have ever written, and one of the highlights of the album, sticking in your head long after it’s finished.  The importance of Eric Axelson & Joe Easley cannot be emphasised enough in what makes the greatest parts of The Dismemberment Plan.  With Travis’s instinct for wild experimentation, tracks like White Collar White Trash would be a mess without the surging back end propelling its collage of sounds.

This is by no means the best album The Dismemberment Plan have made, but don’t take that to mean it’s a disappointment.  It’s a joy to hear the plan writing together again, and any fears that this would be nothing more than a vessel for Travis’s solo material are abated.  Whether The Plan are as relevant or interesting today doesn’t matter to them anymore.  Thankfully, this album proves that the world still needs more from them.  The Braniac influenced psychotic side of their sound may have long departed, it’s better that they’re making music which reflects the people they are now.  They grew up and so did their fans.  It feels good to have The Dismemberment Plan back, I can only hope that this isn’t the last we hear from them.

[Rating:3.5]

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